By Daniel Paiz
Hip-Hop adjacent albums rarely excite as much as the usual fanfare for A Week’s Worth album review. However, the new Gorillaz’ album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez: Deluxe is certainly not the normal kind of album coming out these days. The animated band out of London has ranged in stylings from art pop to Hip-Hop, rock to trip-hop and it’s a core value at the center of the band. Making themselves nearly impossible to place has graced the band with unmatched creative freedom.
I mean, the knack Damon Albarn has for collaborations is impressive. Pusha T and Mavis Staples together on a track for starters. Or as we see on Song Machine, Volume One, there’s a track with Elton John and 6lack. This music is what happens when someone dares to dream up eclectic combinations and works to bring them to fruition.
The newest release is a continuation of that attention-grabbing process.
Strange Timez is an understatement
Unless you are a time traveler or simply choose to reside in a subterranean environment, the world of today is a weird place. Boorish people who care more about celebrity than national growth are in charge of massive armies and economies. Those who have some ideas that might aid others are labelled as radical or wrong. Satirical and humor-based publications write headlines more accurate than trusted news sources.
In some ways the above description feels like the setting of a somewhat dystopian time. Yet somehow, that’s the world of 2020, and this group of animated band members finds a way to both reflect and distract from the world around us. There’s a bit of abstract messaging in these songs, but that’s partially because it’s art that’s left open to your interpretation. One song that reflects this well for me is The Pink Phantom:
I tried to tell you that I love you but I’m choked up You forgot and that makes me feel like no love (Summer lines) Were you ever really there? Did you ever really care? Wait, I got so many examples of all of the Good times we had, long summer nights (Summer lines) Held you long time, put your name in my rhyme Refresh your memory of where you wanna be The phantom's on the way, she's comin’ down the street
The simplicity in the lines above from Atlanta rapper/singer 6lack are profound. Love lost and the nostalgia of memories feel heavy here. The pink phantom mentioned throughout might be love. Or perhaps it might be a partner from times past, or it might be something else lingering over either the artists or the listeners. Despite not having a definitive answer (even after watching the music video), that’s the joy this group creates.
An album that’s not really an album
Because this is a Gorillaz project, it both feels like an album and doesn’t simultaneously. A lot of the song titles hint at a bit of needed escapism, but that’s mostly standard fare. Song machine is a good descriptor here, as the mashing of artists from somewhat differing backgrounds cooking up songs that only Albarn could think up. Perhaps that’s what’s also strange about current times: creative risks aren’t being taken.
Experimentation is no longer a big focus on newer tapes. The perfect example of that would be critical reception of past Gorillaz (or lack thereof) projects between this 2020 iteration and 2010’s Plastic Beach. I personally enjoyed both Humanz and The Now Now, but it seems popular opinion didn’t feel the same. Perhaps there’s another shift in music right now. One in which fans and musicians alike are seeking something different than the norm. If that’s the case then this project was dropped just in time.
Another case of mashups working well is one of the later tracks on the deluxe edition of the album, entitled MLS. Baltimore rapper JPEGMafia and Japan’s pop act CHAI combine for an intriguing creation:
Baby got it for me (Got it for me) But I'm a face to the critics 'cause they beneath me (Oh, oh, facts) Never met an A&R that I wanted to be (It’s all fine, ii kanji beautiful day) Beggin' for plus one, stream, tickets and VIP These niggas get fat, blow money, and lose beefs It's tragic, shake my hand when I hit the ballot (Yeah) Shake my head, niggas got more money than talent Mmm, niggas know I shoot above the average (Pssht) -verse 2, JPEGMafia, MLS
On paper the lyrics don’t hit the same way as when you’re listening to the song. However, JPEGMafia is discussing how his competition isn’t stacking up. At the same time the sounds swirling around the verse are the opposite of braggadocio. While not calm, they somewhat downplay the message in this track. This smashing of messaging coupled together with the artist mashup itself continues said experimental nature.
While one can’t really compare this album to others we’ve reviewed, it’s a refreshing break from what’s out there. Music at times is meant to be an escape, and to also be bold and try new things. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have done so for decades, and this is a continuation of taking said risks. If you haven’t yet, take a chance and explore this album.